Why Fake Titles Matter
Last night, I learned I officially got a new job title: Principal Software Developer at Stack Overflow. I knew about this about a week ago, but it became official yesterday. I feel very uneasy announcing the news this way. This essay is scary for me to write and it is frightening for me to publish. For a long time, I really didn’t think that job titles mattered very much, and I even thought that they could be hazardous to a work environment and to yourself. For one, titles seem pretty meaningless and fake: what a job title means at one company could be very different from what it means at another company. They can also be harmful at work. They seem to create largely artificial pecking orders, give people an opportunity to abuse their rank to make arbitrary decisions, and fracture teams that could focus on working together on the same level. On top of that, caring a lot about a title for yourself just seems like ego-stroking. Flashing it around makes people uneasy, doing so screams insecurity and lack of self-awareness to others, and it's otherwise just boastful posturing. So why is this important to me? Why should titles be important to anyone? Why write an essay about earning a title?
There's one reason I want to focus on in this essay, and it’s one that’s taken me the last year to fully understand. It's because for some of us, earning a title isn’t about comparing yourself to others and it isn't about feeling good about yourself and it isn't even about the money or the influence that comes with it. Of course, those aspects are real, and it's silly to deny that those things don't play some part in earning a title.
But for some of us, earning a title isn’t just about the person getting it anymore.
Caught Between Worlds
I was different, and not only different, but caught between multiple worlds. I’m Asian but I’m American. I’m American but I’m Asian. I’m Asian but I’m gay. I’m gay but I’m Asian. The list goes on, in every possible permutation. I realized at a very young age that I would never fit in naturally into any community, and as I grew older, my identity became even more manifold.
So when it came to considering becoming an engineer, all those "buts" pulled me away from pursuing a career in technology. When I was 18, I decided to move from Los Angeles to New York City to study philosophy in college. I chose not to take computer science classes. At the time, I told myself I didn't need to—I could already build sites on my own. But deep down, I really wanted to be coding. I just thought I couldn't. I didn't fit in with the people in those classes, and I already knew what it was like to stick out in school because I came out so early. I had no role models that I had something in common with; all the professors in the department didn't really look like me. I had no one to look to or join in with because I was just too different. I was neither here nor there nor anywhere, and I was on my own, caught between worlds. So I decided not to join in altogether.
Fast-forward a few years later, and somehow I landed a job at Stack Overflow. For a long time, I still felt stuck. This is my first real engineering job. I was the second youngest engineer and one of two people of color when I joined. I have no computer science degree, not even a bootcamp course certificate. Yet somehow, I found myself working side-by-side with some of the best developers I could think of, and for the longest time, I felt like an imposter every day.
Then, last year, something changed for me. There's a conference I've been going to almost every year since I joined the company called Out for Undergrad. It brings LGBTQ+ youth from around the country to fly in to San Francisco to be mentored, taught, and recruited by professionals at some of the biggest tech companies in the world. I'd been speaking and mentoring at the conference every chance I got to since I joined Stack Overflow. There was one year, in 2016, that I didn't go because I was out of the country, but I had heard from one of my colleagues who went instead that one of the attendees had been looking for me at the conference. I didn't know who it was at the time and I didn't get their name, so I didn't think much about it. Then when I returned to the conference last year, that same person found me there. I'll call him Kay.
Kay told me he had been following my work. He found out about me through some of the online work I'd done: communities I started, Bento, my writing. He told me he grew up in the same town that I grew up in, and that he went to the same high school that I did. He was also Asian, and he was also gay. He wanted to be a software engineer, like me. He was passionate about diversity & inclusion in tech, like me. Kay told me he was looking for me the previous year at the conference, but he wasn't able to. He just wanted to introduce himself. I thanked him, told him what he said meant a lot to me, and that we should keep in touch.
Kay didn't know it then, and until he reads this essay, he probably doesn't know now, but that conversation turned my world upside-down. The day of my encounter with Kay, it kept me up most of the night. I didn't really know what to do with myself. My whole life I had been searching for people who were like me who I could look to for guidance, discouraged at every turn when I failed to discover them, and suddenly, I had become that person for someone else—a stranger. I was jarred. Were there others? Who else was watching me? Who am I now to the others caught between worlds, like I've been? These questions haunted me for several weeks after that day, and no matter how many conversations I had with friends, with colleagues, with my parents, I could never feel at ease. This is not something I had asked for, and it's not something I felt ready take on. It felt too big. It felt too self-important.
As the months went on over the last year, those questions started to clear and an answer began to come into focus. My entire professional career has been dedicated to making technology education and opportunity available to everyone, especially people who are underserved and underrepresented in the technology industry. It's why I volunteer my time to do nonprofit work to help queer youth. It's why I work on Bento in my free time to help self-taught developers. It's why I'm passionate about making Stack Overflow and its Q&A platform accessible to newcomers. Up until last year, I thought all of my work has been about what's external and what I produce. It's about what features I'm building, how many people I'm reaching with my talks, what social programs I'm starting. My work had been only about what I create; I never considered my own success as part of that work. Over the last year, I'm realizing that what I do, who I am, if I succeed, and if others see me is as much a part of my work as all the things that I make. An answer to those questions came: work, because even if you didn't ask for it, your success is now no longer just your own.
What's in a Name?
Titles. Awards. Trophies. All these things seem so inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. They're just names. They're just hunks of metal. They're all fake. The majority opinion seems to be that titles don’t matter, but I want to highlight that it’s the majority’s opinion. It’s typically the opinion of people who aren't caught between worlds, of people who don't feel out of place all the time, of people that look and feel like the majority. To people in the majority, titles might not matter a lot because people in the majority get titles, awards, and trophies all the time. It's common, and when it's common, it starts to lose its meaning. It's not a bad opinion, but it's an opinion that some of us just don't have the privilege of holding.
For some of us, things like titles matter because they aren't awarded as often as they are for people in the majority. For some of us, we don't see people like us get a promotion, or an award, or get a banner weekend at the box office. For some of us, we don't see a woman, a queer person, an immigrant, a self-taught learner, a person of color succeed, so when we do, it matters for us.
I was very close to not getting the title I got yesterday. Engineers at Stack Overflow are rated on a scale from 1 to 6, and this is the first year we tied job titles to scores. In the past, no matter how much my score changed, my title always stayed Developer. This year, if I had a score of 4 or above, my title would be Principal Software Developer. I was at 3.9 at the time of my initial review. When I made my case about my performance before everyone’s scores were finalized, after gathering all the evidence for my work and collecting testimonials to back my claims, I wrote a final note to my manager to put my case into context. I gave him a version of this essay. I said if money was an issue, the company could keep the difference from my salary. I said that this title mattered to me a lot, but not for the reasons he'd probably first think of. I didn't hear back immediately.
While I was waiting for a response, I was worried I hadn't done enough. I thought I might have failed, and I thought about who I might have failed. I thought about all the students I spoke to at bootcamps who were trying to make better lives for themselves. I thought about the queer kids I've mentored and the stories they've told me about discovering themselves. I thought about my parents and my grandparents, who picked up and devoted their lives to give their children the opportunity to thrive. I thought about me, 12-year-old me, caught between worlds and with no one to show him the way. I thought about all those people. I thought about Kay.
Yesterday, I learned I didn't fail. Today, I'm making myself seen. If you're caught between worlds, like I've been, maybe these words ring true for you too. When you succeed, you don't need to flaunt, but I'm asking you to be seen. When you win, others may be looking at you. People searching for someone to look up to might be watching. I'm learning my wins aren't just about me anymore. Your wins may not just about you anymore either. Titles still seem fake to me. Even after reading this, titles might still seem fake to you too.
But for some people watching us, they're real.